On Computers

Why You Really Should Give GNU/LINUX a Trial Run

Jack 'daWabbit' Imsdahl, jack@oncomputers.info

01 June 2003

You're not going to hear me make any statements like "GNU/Linux is ready for the desktop user" here, or any to the contrary, either. If you want to know the truth, I think any such statement is misleading, at best, and foolish at the worst. Computing, like so much else we do, is a very personal and individual thing. What suits one person perfectly simply won't do for the next one.

I will say, though, that GNU/Linux is able to accommodate all my needs. Come to think of it, Windows will, too. And probably the Mac OS X in it's current incarnation will, as well. I use both GNU/Linux and Windows now and that appears to me how it will be for the foreseeable future.

You can add all the philosophical arguments you wish to reasons why or why not try GNU/Linux. I'm not going to bother. In the end, it comes down to what suits one best, no matter in which way it does so.

You will NOT hear me make the argument that GNU/Linux is immune to virus problems. True, there have been no significant virus outbreaks affecting Linux to date, but that will change. Sooner or later, those individuals who write and spread malicious code will get around to writing for GNU/Linux. Probably sooner, if I know my criminals. So this particular argument is bogus, or will be, over the long haul.

There are good, sound reasons why you should go ahead and try it, though. Here are some of them. I'm sure I didn't think of them all, as these are mostly drawn from my experiences.

My original reasons for trying GNU/Linux had a lot to do with efficiency in processing Setiathome work units. (Yes, really. I can be that shallow.) A few years ago, Linux was about 20% faster than Windows 9x in doing that, on the same hardware. In the intervening time, GNU/Linux has lost most, if not all, of it's advantage in this, unless one compares a stripped command line only version with XP, where the difference is in supporting the graphic user interface (gui) which takes considerable power. While Linux has gotten more efficient along the way, too, Windows 2000 and Windows XP have made much more progress. It's likely that for almost all of us home users now, there is no substantive difference in speed of processing and that it's not until you get into really intensive stuff, such as video, animation or compiling programs that you will find one. If you are not actively doing such intense things with real regularity, forget about benchmarks, etc; as reason for using one or the other.

The rest of my reason for trying GNU/Linux was stability. Where I was
rebooting Windows 98 more than once daily, I would go weeks without having to reboot the same machine running GNU/Linux. Nowadays, Windows reboots are rare (as they should be). Otter and I reboot her Windows 2000 Professional machine weekly, just because. Mine gets rebooted much more often because of Microsoft's (and other developers, too) habit of including a largely gratuitous reboot at the end of software installations. I install a lot of software, so I reboot more often. Forced reboots, like when 9x used to lock up or present the dreaded blue screen, are so rare now that neither Otter nor I could recall exactly when it last occurred here or to which one of us. It's been months, anyway.

So, with all that preamble out of the way, here goes:

GNU/Linux will revitalize older hardware. Support for some versions of
Windows 9x has already ceased. That means there are a lot of people running Internet connected machines for which no one is providing current security fixes and upon which newer versions of Windows have problems because of lack of backward hardware support. That's kind of silly, to me, when you can put GNU/Linux on that machine and have at your disposal timely security updates as needed. Support for older hardware is strong among GNU/Linux application developers, as well as the kernel developers. Drivers for older hardware are maintained and updated as needed, in most cases. Running a minimalist window manager such as 'blackbox' or 'icewm' may even result in a slightly faster, 
more responsive machine than it was when running 9x, assuming only relatively good optimization (tweaking) and a kernel specially compiled for your hardware.

In fact, with new hardware as inexpensive as it is, it seems only logical to get a computer, new or used (as used is inexpensive, too, due to the low prices on new stuff) and dedicate it to GNU/Linux, rather than try something like dual booting. I've done the dual boot thing and had little trouble with it. Almost none, in fact. But it seems to me the best way to make GNU/Linux an enjoyable experience is to put it on a machine upon which you will not have to depend at all until you get the system up and running to a 'production' standard. That way you can experiment in the certain knowledge that the only risk in messing up is one of the time to make it right again.

Installing and using GNU/Linux is a learning experience, too. In the course of installing and configuring it, you are going to become a better, more knowledgeable computer user. No, you do not have to transform yourself into 'uber geek' in any way, shape or form. But neither can you expect to install and configure your GNU/Linux machine with the same ease and lack of thought with which Windows goes on common hardware. It takes a bit of thought, some reading, and perhaps a bit of research to get things right.

To the more technically inclined among us, this lack of ease has a
profitable outcome, as making those decisions during installation and 
configuration are a reflection of GNU/Linux offering greater control to the user than Windows does. With greater control, of course, comes greater responsibility. This will pay off, eventually, as your knowledge increases. But at first, it's a bit of a barrier.

Help is available, though. The Linux Documentation Project offers a variety of how-to documents and tutorials for you to use. There are numerous help sites on the web for you to access, too, including many in form of forums, where you can post specific questions regarding your problem and get specific answers. Come into the #oncomputers, #icug or #ilug chats and we'll try to help. The resources are there for you when you get stuck.

Contrary to the 'common wisdom', one does not need to program at all to make good use of GNU/Linux. Shell scripts and all that are nice to know how to generate, but not at all necessary. Some time spent at the various GNU/Linux help sites will show that such scripts are often offered as solutions to specific needs, but not as necessary solutions to the common user. GNU/Linux distributions provide text editors that are easy to use, such as pico and jed (as well as some extremely complex and powerful ones like emacs and vi/vim) with which one can edit configuration files, as needed. These files are in nearly plain english and commented heavily to allow the average user to set things as needed, so don't panic over the prospect.

GNU/Linux is fun. Really. And while you'll be forced to use the command line on occasion, most users will spend over 99% of their time in a gui
environment, given any of the more modern distributions. Even the command line is not a barrier any more. My wife is not particularly technically inclined and she was easily and profitably using Linux within an hour, when first I installed it. That was 'way back (Red Hat 5.2) and things were not nearly as sleek as they are today.

My definition of 'fun' also includes a sense of satisfaction. There's lots of that in Windows based computing, too, of course. Solving a problem or enabling something that previously wasn't up and running is occasion to smile and feel good, no matter what OS you're running.

And, if you get a ways into using GNU/Linux, you'll finally have an informed opinion on it, backed up by experience. I don't know how many times I've been told something about GNU/Linux by someone that is totally untrue, only to find on questioning that person that their exposure to using GNU/Linux is a half hour of beery play with Tux Racer over at Cousin Goober's. In my mind, that's hardly experience, but that doesn't stop folks from mouthing off. (I should note here also that there are many falsehoods floating about the GNU/Linux community regarding Windows, too, from folks who don't use it. Shooting off one's mouth seems a universal trait, not confined by any means to one group.)

Lastly, here's a link to a site which tells you why you should not try GNU/Linux. It's a pro-GNU/Linux site and the author has done an really excellent job of honestly depicting the criteria upon which you should base your decision. I've linked straight to the article, but the rest of the site is interesting, also, and should probably be bookmarked as a reference.


© 2003 Jack Imsdahl

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